Roddy Woomble - Interview

  by Benjamin Howarth

published: 31 / 10 / 2017

Roddy Woomble - Interview

As he prepares to release his fourth 'solo' album, 'The Deluder' Idlewild's Roddy Woomble explains that he really sees it as the work of a genuine band over a 'really creative couple of months' and tells us about the 'great team' he has formed.


Bands often assess their own work less on how fans and critics react to it, and more on how much they enjoyed making it. Hence Roddy Woomble, the singer in Idlewild for more than twenty years and now a solo artist for more than ten as well, tends to prefer the albums he and his bands were able to take their time on. With ‘The Deluder’, his fourth album as a ‘solo’ artist, several months of “extremely creative” work have been distilled into a set of eleven songs. Some find him picking up the threads from his earlier solo albums and recent work with Idlewild, some find him tipping his hat to his earliest musical inspirations (Pavement and Paul McCartney) and some see him gently branch out with hints of his growing love of electronica and jazz. The most evident feature of his conversation with Pennyblackmusic was just how proud he was of the record – and with good reason. An adventure through multiple sounds and textures, it is all held together with Woomble’s rich vocals and strong melodies. It finds him at his most ambitious and unrestrained, with the mid-album shift between the jerky indie-pop of ‘Jupiter’, to the gorgeous piano ballad ‘Like A Skull with a Teardrop’ to the brooding slow burner ‘Like Caruso’, an indication of just how much ground is covered. Woomble has never been comfortable being typecast. His band Idlewild shrugged off their early reputation for angular, abrasive indie to branch out in widescreen radio-friendly pop-rock, before he retreated to the folk clubs in the early years of his solo career. Idlewild have long since made peace with themselves, with their 2015 ‘Everything Ever Written’ becoming the truly flawless classic the band had always been pointing towards. Now, with ‘The Deluder’, Woomble takes the most appealing parts of his more folky records and blends them with the music he is most likely to listen to at home. Shortly before the album’s release date, and as Roddy began preparing to go out on his biggest tour as a solo act, he sat down to answer our questions. PB: The obvious place to start is the new record. It’s less than a month now until it arrives… RW: Yeah, I know. It has crept up… PB: Are you ready and looking forward to the release? RW: Yeah, I am. We finished it quite a while ago, in February/March. So there is always that time of, like, in-between, when the tour is booked and you are just waiting for the record to come out. And in that time, I started working on another record. We have begun work on the next Idlewild album. And then suddenly your focus changes back to the record you finished a while ago. It always seems to work like that. When you finish something, you start to work on something else and then you have to go back to it when people finally get to hear it. But, I am really looking forward to it. We are doing quite a lot of gigs around the UK and then over to Europe. So the next few months, from September through to November, are pretty busy for me. PB: You did a tour, a mini-tour I suppose you’d call it, earlier this year in March and April. RW: Yeah, that was to coincide with when we announced the album. We put out ‘Like Caruso’ as a single-y thing and we then did about eight gigs around the UK. That was, one, to get back in the swing of things and also, two, to put ourselves on the radar a wee bit again before the record proper is released. PB: I saw one of those shows. I was at the St Pancras Old Church concert in London. It was really good by the did a handful of songs from the new album then. Do you think the tour that you are about to do will be the same set-up and format? RW: Yeah, it’s the same band that I will be playing with. It’s always Sorren Maclean (guitar), Hannah Fisher (fiddle and vocals), Andrew Mitchell (bass and keyboards) and Danny Grant (drums). Also, on some of the shows, Ailidh, my wife, is going to be playing bass with us. She used to be the bassist in Sons and Daughters and she’s back and playing. And then, Luciano (Lucci) Rossi, who also plays in Idlewild is going to join us for a few of the shows. So, a few extra people coming and going, but largely yes, it will be the same band that you saw back in March. We mainly play songs from the solo records. We don’t really feel the need to go back into the Idlewild stuff anymore, because there are now really quite strong and varied records there and the band can go back and rework things. Obviously, some of the earlier solo records are quite folky, but ‘The Deluder’ isn’t at all. The whole style that we play in isn’t folky anymore, so I suppose a lot of those folkier tracks will be de-folkified, if you like. PB: I noticed that when you did the shows last year for the tenth anniversary of ‘My Secret is My Silence’, your first solo record. It was interesting, even on that tour, how the arrangements had changed quite dramatically… RW: Well, I’m not really a massive fan of folk music… do you know what I mean? I don’t really actually listen to it. I do like some of the traditional sounds, with fiddles and accordions, but actually the singer-songwriter folk I am not actually that keen on. It’s a personal taste thing. So it was weird, really, that I made a record like that. It was more to do with the influence of John McCusker, who is a folk musician and then we had lots of his friends play on it. I really like that album. I am not criticising it at all. But, it’s not something I wanted to repeat or do again. I wanted to do different things, which I think is something it is important to do creatively anyway. So, yeah, I have got to the point where one of the most popular records that I have made is quite a folky album. So, the question is how we approach that without dismissing what the record was about. Obviously, the fans of the record want to hear it like that, or more or less like that. I think we do quite a good job of that – we keep some of the folk elements, but the fiddle playing is a bit more like the Velvet Underground than, you know, Ally Bain (Laughs). PB: This feels like a development that has been coming over the past few records. Your last two solo records (‘The Impossible Song and Other Songs’ and ‘Listen to Keep’) were both folky in some senses, but there was a sense you were deliberately trying not to just do a folk song. RW: With this record, it wasn’t really even a consideration. It was made with me, Andrew, Lucci and Danny. The four of us made it, and it was really made as a band that happened to be called ‘Roddy Woomble’. We weren’t approaching it as me coming in with a song and saying, “Here’s my song and you guys play on it.” We were writing them together and working on them together, as you would in a band. And, no one there is a traditional folk musician in that way. What we were working with was keys, synths, electric guitars and drums. So, it doesn’t sound remotely folky. The difference is that, on those earlier records, there has always been a musician playing with me in the band who is a fiddle player or an acoustic guitar player, who brings it into that zone. But, the songs themselves were never like that. I’m not an introspective songwriter – I’m a melodic songwriter who is more interested in vagueness and findings little lines that you remember, but always based around the tune being strong – verse and bride and into the chorus. I am that kind of a songwriter, so by that nature, it is never going to have the storytelling nature of folk songwriting. PB: Last year, you published your book, ‘Instrumentals’. It felt like lots of passages from scrapbooks and your notes, and it meant there were lines from one song next to others from quite a lot later on, and also some of the songs that you co-wrote with Sorren Maclean for his solo album. When you were doing the songs for this album was this a new set of notes or were you going back to some of those old lines that you’d had for previous albums? RW: No, they were all new. The reason I wanted the book to be like that is to show the way I work. I come up with lots of lines and, obviously, I fill in the gaps when I turn them into songs. But those lines that I out into ‘Instrumentals’ were the best ones, I think, and the ones that formed the starting point of all the songs. And that is the way I work here too. I have constantly got a notepad and a pen handy, and then I accumulate notes and lines, and that is then turned into a record. That was the case with ‘The Deluder’. It was an accumulation of a year’s worth of thoughts and words, that I then put into this record. Some of those lines are better than others, like always. That was always the case with Idlewild records – there are some lines on those records that are very throwaway, and purely there to get you from one part of the song to the next, from one line to the next. One of the advantages of not being a storytelling songwriter is that there are quite a lot of lines that you can take out. One line is not always important to the next line, and the song doesn’t really lose much. So, it is just a different way of thinking. One of the reasons I wanted to do that book was to get that idea across, of thinking in a non-linear fashion when it comes to lyrics. I wanted people to realise that’s the kind of way I work. PB: From listening to ‘The Deluder’, although it’s quite a step on musically, people who are fans of the last few solo albums – and indeed, people who are fans of Idlewild – will probably see a certain degree of similarity in how you work. It doesn’t feel like you have radically changed the template. Is that fair? RW: I think this record is more like an Idlewild record than a solo record. Particularly if you heard the last Idlewild album, ‘Everything Ever Written’ and are a fan of that then you will see a lot of similarities with ‘The Deluder’ and that record. Obviously, Rod Jones is not on ‘The Deluder’, so it’s not guitar dominated and there are not the riffs that he is known for, and his input is what makes something an Idlewild record. So this solo album doesn’t have that, but it does have a lot of similarities. PB: In particular, I noticed that there are a lot of songs where the basslines take a really leading role. RW: Yeah, and that’s Andrew, and he plays bass in Idlewild too. And Lucci plays a bit of bass on it too, actually. I mean, Lucci and Andrew both play in Idlewild and then there are a big part of this record, so it does have a lot of both. In fact, many of the songs on this record were actually started off with the intention of being Idlewild songs. I was working on songs like ‘Like Caruso’ on my own on my house and I let others hear them. We ended up working on those songs for this solo record rather than for the next Idlewild album. PB: Am I right that the initial plan was to go straight back into the studio with Idlewild after the tours for ‘Everything Ever Written’ ended? RW: We did, actually. We did quite a bit of songwriting that year, and we had quite a good collection of songs. Then, after we did a short American tour in 2016, we booked a studio in Los Angeles for a week and we recorded five of them. But, just when we got back, Rod Jones took over running a studio in Edinburgh, and that has just taken all of his time up. Lucci lives in London and does a lot of his composing work there and, eventually, we just collectively agreed that we would take some time out of this, work on our own things and come back to it when we are ready. So we are going to come back to it early next year. In the meantime, I made this record and put some of those creative ideas I was having into that, rather than all of them going into Idlewild. PB: And Sorren and Hannah, who have been the mainstays of your solo band, are still involved. Do they feature on the recordings at all? RW: They are not on it that much. As I say, we did make it as a band with the four of us. Sorren is on one track, and plays acoustic guitar. Hannah plays on a few more and does also sing on a lot of it. She does backing vocals. So they are involved, but not as much as on previous records, where they were recording every song. But they are a still a big part of the live band. You’ve seen us before, so you’ll know that they are really the anchor of the band when I play live. PB: Even on previous solo records, there had always been people who played on the recordings but were then not part of the live shows. Your live band is now quite an established unit, isn’t it? RW: Yeah, Sorren has been playing with me since 2010, so seven years. Then Danny joined the band in 2011 and Hannah in about 2012. And then Andrew and Lucci have been playing with me in Idlewild since 2014. So, it is quite established. It is not me with a bunch of session musicians I have hired. It is definitely a band that have played a lot of shows together you are coming to see if you book tickets for the shows. PB: It always looks to me that you are really just in two bands, one Idlewild and then one where you call it Roddy Woomble because that would get more attention than inventing a new name. RW: I was always quite uncomfortable about putting my own name up front, but when we made ‘My Secret is My Silence’, there was no way of avoiding that. It really was a solo record. But I don’t feel that the others have been like that. But, obviously, it’s a bit daft at this stage of my career to try and make up a new band name. I hope people realise that I work with a band, that the records are of a certain quality and quite different really. It could have gone the other way – it could have been ‘who wants to listen to this guy?’ But I think people have started to realise that it isn’t a guy sitting on a stool with an acoustic guitar emoting. It is a really good band and, in some ways, a similar sort of thing to what Idlewild do. A really versatile band that change and have lots of ideas. I really like the balance I have now, with two really good bands that I get to perform with. PB: You mentioned sitting on a stool. I remember on earlier tours, you and the band did use to perform sitting down, but you reverted back to more of a rock band set-up eventually. RW: Now, it really depends on whether we have drums or not. On the early tours, a lot of the places we played in were small and the fees were not as good, and we couldn’t really afford to have drums on tour with us. Drums would have meant hiring a van, and that would have reduced how much anyone would have got paid…just really boring, practical things like that. Also, often the reason we were sat down is that a lot of the venues were seated. If the audience are seated, you don’t have a drum kit and it’s much more mellow. It makes sense just to sit down too. So, we did that for a few years. But, the moment you get drums involved, it’s always better to stand up, isn’t it? Most of the venues we are playing on the dates we have coming up are bigger venues, and we will have drums and we will be standing up. PB: Overall, you are typically playing in larger venues on this tour than you have in previous years with the solo band, aren’t you? RW: They are. When the agent booked it, I did think that they were big, big places for me to play. Some of them are perhaps twice as big as I would normally play. So, I suppose it is a bit of a gamble. But I think it is an important thing to do. The agent and the label both said to me that I could just continue to be a cult concern – putting out a record every couple of years and touring small clubs, or you could try and push yourself out a bit, play bigger venues and get on the radio. That’s what we are trying to with this record. Whether it will work, who knows? There are so many bands, so you can never really tell. My motto is aim low (Laughs) - then you’re not disappointed. PB: Particularly with this album, and perhaps with the small exception of a few Idlewild fans whose interest is more in the heavy rock guitars, you would think that anyone who came to the last Idlewild tour, where you always played big venues, would like this record. RW: Yeah, but it's funny. They do have very different fanbases, my solo albums and then Idlewild. There is some crossover, obviously. But I have always found it quite strange. It is quite a different crowd that come to see me when I do my solo shows. Maybe that is because of all the touring I did on the folk circuit, especially with ‘My Secret is My Silence’ and ‘Before The Ruin’. I wouldn’t call it a struggle, but it has been harder than you think it would be to get people to think that what I do on my own is just as good as when I am in a band, but just a different thing. So it’s been a slower thing, and has taken a lot of years of playing. But now we are at a point where we are playing bigger venues, so we will see if the audience will come with us. I don’t know, but I am also really keen to get new people interested in it – there is no reason why it only has to be existing Idlewild fans. The music is good. It’s accessible, and it’s interesting. I’m not a has-been nostalgia act and Idlewild hopefully aren’t that either. It feels relevant to me and that’s the reason we are trying to get some new fans too. PB: I was sitting next to someone at one of your shows, and they clearly knew all the songs from the solo records, but when you came to do Idlewild’s biggest hit, ‘You Held the World In Your Arms’, they didn’t know it. RW: Well, I quite like that too. That shows that I am doing something right. I don’t want the shows just to be full of people who are really hoping that I will play ‘Little Discourage’, but aren’t interested in any other songs. We are at the opposite of that now – people who are thinking, "I hope he plays something from that solo record." When I play an Idlewild song, I do sometimes see people thinking, you know, “What the hell is this? This seems a bit basic”. Because the earlier Idlewild songs are straightahead indie rock anthems, and that’s the way they should be played. If you try and deviate from that, maybe changing the drumbeat or whatever, they lose what actually made them good. So, apart from maybe ‘You Held the World…’ and ‘American English’, I maybe don’t go too deeply into that. Also, Idlewild are still very much a going concern and we will play again, so the people who want to hear those early songs will just have to wait and come and see us then! PB: Just going back to this album, ‘The Deluder’. Previously, you’d always had one other person – either Rod or Sorren – as your main songwriting collaborator. Did it feel like a change when you were working as a trio? RW: There was a different vibe, completely, with doing it this way. In the past, it had always been a one-on-one thing, and that’s good too. But, if you have been doing something one way for a long time, you do need to find new ways of working. Creatively, it’s always good to change, and see if there any ideas you can squeeze out of that or any new approaches you can take. This time, some of the songs began with just me – I wrote them on an acoustic guitar. Then I played that to Andrew and Lucci and they suggested stuff. But, some were the three of us working together – ‘Jupiter’ and ‘Look Back Like Leaving’, for example. Danny, the drummer, also contributed massively. He did lots of programming, so a lot of the effects and textures you hear on the record came from him, as well as giving them a real direction with the drums and the rhythm. I have been working with Andrew and Lucci for a few years now in Idlewild, so we’ve got really used to each other. I think we make a great team. Obviously, when Rod is involved with Idlewild, it is different and he adds a lot, as he’s a really great songwriter. But I am really happy with how this album turned out. PB: It has never felt to me like you have begun your albums with a really conscious plan of how they are going to turn out at the end… RW: Oh no, I have no idea. I mean, I don’t play instruments. I mean, I can play a bit of guitar and enough of the keys and bass to come up with ideas for melodies. But nothing to a standard of competence. So, all of my ideas have that basic quality to them. But I think for really good musicians, like Andrew, Lucci, Sorren or Rod, I think that can be really interesting. Sorry for the kitchen metaphor, but I provide the raw ingredients and they can then cook them into a song. That’s the way it is, but I am the ideas man really, with melodies and lyrics, so then working with different musicians means the songs can end up sounding quite different. PB: I would imagine for them, as collaborators, it is much more rewarding than working with someone who has already decided what the song should sound like… RW: Oh yeah… I think that would be pretty weird! PB: You have published some blogs, accompanied by playlists, which are intended to give people a clue, perhaps, of the influences that are behind this record. I was wondering how much that was discussed or shared between you while you were actually making the record? RW: Not really. Danny and Lucci, in particular, are much more up-to-date with what’s going on. I’m not really, When I was in my twenties, I knew every band and had an opinion on lots of things, and then as you get older you get less and less interested in a lot of that. But, at the same time, you listen deeper to the things that you love. I listen to a lot of electronic music and jazz. I really love it. That’s music I could never make myself, and there’s almost a kind of relief when I listen to it. When I listen to a lot of indie rock and singer-songwriter music, I think about it more, “why didn’t I think of that?”… that kind of thing, So, if we are looking for things that might be influences on the records, I am pretty open. The records I listen to don’t reflect, really, the music I make. Paul McCartney, I am a massive fan of, as are Andrew, Lucci and Danny. We were listening to 'McCartney II' a lot, because it’s just so off the cuff and creative. I think a lot of that is an influence on the record. PB: ‘Jupiter’ in particular, I would say. RW: Yeah, and I think that song has also got a bit of Pavement in it as well. We are all big Pavement fans. Then, some of the record, has a bit of a Beatles ‘Abbey Road’ vibe, particularly the way that we processed the drums. Generally, the Beatles and McCartney remain a massive influence on music and I’m no exception. PB: You mentioned jazz, and this record clearly shows that influence. I don’t think you would describe it as a jazz album… RW: No, it’s not. But Lucci has a background as a jazz piano player, and he has a real understanding of that. So you can ask him to play a bit more like that, and he can give you something off the wall. With the arrangements, there was a bit more space to them. That meant that we had more room to think about adding solos or interesting parts. It was a really creative couple of months. PB: Perhaps, also picking up on some of the ideas explored on the last Idlewild record as well. I wondered if maybe a song like ‘Utopia’, which seems to be quite a few people’s favourite from the last Idlewild album and is a bit different to anything you’d done before, gave you more confidence to keep exploring that kind of direction. RW: I never really know what people like. That’s the thing. I try not to get too involved in that. I’ve had periods in my life where I did worry about whether or not people liked certain tracks or were happy with what I was doing. It can make you feel really bad…Twitter or that kind of stuff. So, I think what I’ve learned is that I just need to do the best job that I can and then time will tell if it is good enough. You make the most interesting songs you can, at that time in your life, and then see what happens. Some of my favourite records, you know, that came out before I was born. If you do any research on them, you can find out that they were panned at the time, or people really nit-picked them. But five years later, none of that mattered. The records just stand up for the music. That’s what I hope my work does as well. It is obviously lovely when people like it, it makes you feel great temporarily, and you feel justified for spending all the time on it. But it doesn’t really make any difference, because you know in your gut if something is good enough to release and then, when it is out there, you can’t really control it. PB: The part of the feedback that you can’t ignore is the live shows. Is that different – are you more likely to react to your impression of what the audience reaction is? RW: I think I am pretty good live. Without blowing my own trumpet, I think Idlewild have always taken live performance seriously and enjoy it. Similarly with the solo band, I think we are a really good band. I think, if you are a fan of any kind of music, you’d enjoy seeing us play because everyone in the band is just a really good player – but not in a snide kind of way, just a good dynamic that you are watching. I think the audience really like it. I think the only thing that can spoil that is if you aren’t feeling well, have a cold or whatever, but I think overall we are better than we’ve ever been. PB: Is there anything else I haven’t asked about that you feel potential buyers of the album really should know about? RW: No no, I think that’s all. They’ll have to listen to it now. You know, buy a copy, stream it, come and see us live when we play. PB: Thank you.

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Live Reviews

Scala, London, 17/10/2011
Roddy Woomble - Scala, London, 17/10/2011
Ben Howarth finds Idlewild singer and now solo artist Roddy Woomble embracing the sounds of traditional British folk music and also paying tribute to his old group in a show at the Scala in London

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